Review: iHome iP99 Dual Alarm Clock Radio for iPhone + iPod
Though the growing number of iPod clock radios might confound some people, there is only one as of today that is iPhone-compatible: iHome's iP99 ($150). Highly similar to the company's $100 iH9, which we reviewed and highly recommended late last year, the improved iP99 would have achieved a similar rating were it not for two factors: a $50 premium, which brings iP99 into the same price bracket as stellar iPod systems such as XtremeMac's Luna, even though its features have changed only modestly from the iH9, and some lingering iPhone interference issues with AM/FM radio.
To iHome’s credit, iP99 demonstrates that the company has learned from some of Luna’s industrial design innovations. Rather than once again copying the distinctive but aging shape of the company’s original iH5 radio and its many sequels, iP99 now has a cleaner, rounded rectangular case with an even more unified metal front speaker grille, and larger top-mounted controls. This more modern case is notable not only for its shape, which we prefer to iH9’s, but for its matte texture, which doesn’t show smudges as easily as its glossy predecessor. While not as Apple-esque and stylish as the Luna enclosure, iP99 looks very nice.
Like iH9, iP99 also borrows from Luna the idea of a white text on black screen, rather than the black text on white screen design that some earlier iHome users found overly bright at night. Both iHome systems have identical eight-stage dimmers, and though iP99’s screen has a blue tint to iH9’s slightly green tint, the difference isn’t in either system’s favor. Both screens provide large numbers for the time and smaller text for the calendar date, which switches to display AM and FM radio tuners and alarm settings.
Though iP99’s controls are virtually identical to the streamlined array on iH9, providing dial-style access to volume and tuning, plus 11 buttons for power, presets, both alarms, snooze/dimming and other features, the buttons and dials have all been boosted in size, making early morning fumbling easier on your fingers. As the most conspicuous “lesson learned” from Luna, iP99’s remote control has been considerably improved from the ones found in virtually all iHome products, now bearing the same candybar size, shape, texture and weight of the impressive Luna remote. iPod menu navigation is now included on this remote, as are the predictable volume, track, radio and equalization toggles found on other iHome systems. Just like the redesign of iP99’s shell, these changes are minor in the grand scheme of things, but certainly welcome. Similarly, iP99’s power adapter is now much smaller than the gigantic one included with iH9, and though iP99 isn’t a portable system per se, iHome notes that it’s better for traveling.
What hasn’t changed much is iP99’s core feature set: it is nearly indistinguishable from iH9 on performance. Both systems feature dual alarm clocks, AM/FM radios with six presets per band, and twin speakers with rear bass ports. The alarms each feature daily, weekday, and weekend settings and the ability to wake you from the radio, iPod, a playlist, or buzzer, just like iH9. These features work just as noted in our prior iH9 review, with only one exception.
That’s equalization. While iP99 still lets you adjust the bass and treble settings of the speakers, you can now activate an SRS WOW audio boost feature that is designed to create artificial 3D spatialization and improve bass performance. By comparison, iH9 includes a generic 3D spatializer that is identified on screen as “3D,” and triggered in the same general way. iH9’s effect adds more of a 3-D effect and additional treble—potentially too much if you’re also using the treble setting—while iP99’s effect adds a little less 3-D and a little more bass. To our ears, the difference is trivial; so too is a change from a 6-Watt amplifier in iH9 to a 10-Watt amplifier in iP99. Both systems achieve the same medium room-filling maximum volume level with less than ideal clarity, but iP99 sounds a little better at its peak.
Though the comparison isn’t entirely fair, it needs to be mentioned that neither the iP99 nor iH9 sounds as dynamic as JBL’s clockless $150 On Stage 200ID or Logitech’s $130 Pure-Fi Anywhere, recent and noteworthy performers in this price category. This isn’t surprising given the additional radio and clock hardware that’s found inside both iH9 and iP99, but it would have been reasonable to expect some more dramatic sonic performance enhancement given that iP99 sells for so much more than iH9.
Truly, the major difference here is iP99’s iPhone compatibility. Like On Stage 200ID, you can plug an iPhone into iP99 without concern that its iPod mode audio will be interrupted by screeching TDMA interference. Dock the iPhone inside and, as with other Works With iPhone accessories, music will play until a call comes in, at which point the current song fades out, and the ringer is heard through iP99’s speakers; the iPhone vibrates, apparently safely, in the system’s dock. If the call is ignored, the ringer stops and the song fades back in. If iPhone receives a call when iP99’s speakers are off, the ringer plays through iPhone’s own speaker rather than iP99’s. Just like On Stage 200ID and Altec Lansing’s iPhone-ready T612, iP99 doesn’t include speakerphone functionality of any sort, so you’ll need to pull the phone from the dock, connect headphones, or use a Bluetooth accessory to answer calls.
The only hiccup in iP99’s functionality is the radio. If the iPhone is docked or nearby when you’re using the AM or FM radios, you’ll hear interference in one of two situations: only rarely if the iPhone is in Wi-Fi mode, then during times when calls are coming in or going out, or with frequency if the iPhone is getting both data and phone service from a cell phone tower, particularly if it’s set to check e-mail or doing something other than just sitting and charging in the cradle. On a positive note, the interference isn’t as loud or abrasive as it is in a system such as iH9, but still, it shouldn’t be there at all. Additionally, should a call come in when iP99’s radio is on, the system doesn’t interrupt the radio’s audio; you’ll see the iPhone’s screen change, but its ringer sound will be masked by iP99’s speakers—ironically, the TDMA noise may be your only audio clue that you’re receiving a call. It would have been nice to see iP99 handle this as gracefully as the transition from iPod music to an incoming call.
In sum, iP99 is a nicer-looking, iPhone-compatible version of last year’s iH9 at a more than slightly higher price. Though we don’t feel that the wattage, power supply, or SRS WOW changes will matter much to most users, and iPod users will do just as well with the cheaper, comparably-equipped iH9, iP99’s ability to serve as a speaker system and clock radio for iPhones makes it a good option for current and potential iPhone users. While the $50 premium strikes us as too steep to put iP99 on par with the best $150 clock radios we’ve tested, and the system’s handling of AM/FM radio interference could use some work, this is still a very good system for iPhone owners overall, and worthy of our general recommendation.